tv [untitled] June 9, 2012 5:30pm-6:00pm EDT
his father was the first black commissioned captain in the american civil war. the first everything in washington, and to some extent he's trying to hold onto it. at some point he makes a decision that he's tired of sitting on the back of the bus, and he builds himself a beautiful house in the brooklyn neighborhood. he goes there, marries a white wife. goes there with his blonde, blue-eyed daughter and enrolls her in public school. and what happens then, of course, comes a knock on the door. right? people who know -- because had he followed his brother and moved to canada and followed his sisters and moved to new york, it would have been different. he tried to make this transition in the town where his name was well-known. comes a knock on the door, and he's exposed. and that exposure is painful to him, but it's sort of the grace of god for us because we would
never know this story other than that. is that not correct? >> yeah. you know, in part because of the way he reacted to this. when his daughter was kicked out of the first grade for being black and rumors started flying -- >> a blonde, blue-eyed girl is kicked out for being black. go ahead. >> and, you know, he would a choice to make. he could have just moved to new york, moved to montreal at that point. he could have moved to just about anywhere, because, you know, if we're thinking about the color line here, for steven wahl it was a line between people who looked white and other people who looked white. but he decided instead to sue the d.c. public schools, and he -- he didn't challenge segregation. what he challenged was the fact
that -- he alleged that the d.c. public schools have the burden of proof. they had to prove that his daughter was black. and that they hadn't satisfied their burden. >> which is a lawyerly argument. >> right. i think it was an argument his father would have loved. what's amazing about that suit is because his parents were so well-known in washington, because his father was a public figure, a trial like this was bound to be essentially a pub memorialization of his parents. you know, this was a -- i mean, it was -- it produced a record that enabled me to really write
their story. >> what is it like communing with the dead that way? >> well, it -- i mean, it's -- in a way, i think a trial transcript is -- you know, in some ways you feel very distanced from people, because they're being asked very specific kinds of questions. you know, they're expected to give a specific kind of answer. but at the same time you have so many different perspectives that you really get a very intimate, three-dimensional sense of who people are and why they're doing what they do. with o.s.b. wahl, o.s.b. wahl was dead at the time this trial happened, but there are
transcripts of the fugitive slave act case. he actually testified, and you know, what comes through with him is, you know, he's a shoemaker who is sitting in a federal court. there are marshals and people armed, and he's someone who is completely unintimidated and is just constantly making jokes. in the trial transcript you're reading his words, and they're always followed by the brackets that is, laughter, order restored. so he was asked at this trial do you know the colors, the complexions, the different complexions of people of color? and he said, sure, i do. they're black, blacker and blackest. and everybody laughed. a lot of gavel banging. that tells you something about a person.
there are certain -- there's a certain kind of performance that people engage in, and at the same time you can get a -- you can see people when they're very vulnerable and you can develop a remarkable portrait of a person. it's also a starting off point. it just gives you so many different kinds of leads. what's really amazed me is the -- the kind of story that this is. it's a story that people tried to cover up as it was happening. you know, the trial transcript really helps. and then there are over the last ten years there's been just this
amazing proliferation of historical and gene logical material available on the internet. i learned communing with the dead is that the secrets that people take to their graves. the secrets of the ages are no match for ancestry.com. and our databases and databases that lead me to manuscript collections. so, you know, from that trial transcript in 1910, from the trial transcript in 1859, you know, i was able to connect the dots in a way at a level of detail. >> that detail, it all shows through, and the contrast between those two trials of the 1859 trial, i must say, is
humorous, and it actually has -- if you read that in isolation, you do feel in some sense a sense of optimism about the country, an optimism about the men and what they've done to free this escaped slave. by 1910 in the steven trial, there's a whole different flavor of the united states. the judge himself, the police who testify, everyone has ingested a sort of frank kind of jim crow mentality. >> the undertaker. >> yes. >> steven wahl's mother's undertaker testifies, and it's a white undertaker. one thing that he says is addition i definitely thought steven wahl's mother was black because her corpse smelled black.
just completely absurd. >> we say that -- we sigh to that, and we should. understand that this mentality, this jim crow mentality, it invaded our very senses. people believed at that time that you could touch -- you can discern black skin by touching it. that blacks had sort of a different aura and odor. a completely different temperament, and this was enshrined actually in the cannon of law. you sit there reading this, and you watch the judge just say these things over and over. so you see steven would -- the other thing i want to say, is i can identify with steven wahl. my family's not that grand. my great-grandfather missed being born a slave by 90 days.
he was conceived in a relationship between a slavemaster and his mother, who was an enslaved woman. just barely born free. and he was a -- he was a pistol of a guy. the one thing about him was he didn't really take any stuff off of white racists in virginia, which is a highly racest state despite what you think about gentility at that time. because of the fact he saw himself as white as they were, and he thought he was from as good a family as any of them and especially the poor people around his farm who gave him money. do you know where i'm from? i'm from that. that's the plantation right there. part of that is mine. that's where i was born. this is my father. so in wahl's sense, too, you see this indignation in them partly because of many reasons,
educated people. also because we have this -- they have -- they were partly white. they had lived close enough to white people, and they had begun to judge themselves reference against them. you see this in the hemmings family. they're living with -- what can you tell, you know, madison jefferson? he's lived in a house with his father thomas jefferson all his life. you can't tell him much. he listens to madison and lafayette. he's serving people. i don't think you can demean him effectively in his mind, because his experience he sees is he actually greater than yours. that's the element of this. you see this working in the wahls. also the trial itself, you know, is such a point -- although it's a bonanza for you and the reader. the reader gets to see some things he or she would never have seen, but it's such a great sadness that we know the end of this trial before it begins.
we know that steven is go to be declared a negro, that he's going to lose his home, that his children are not going to be allowed to go to school, and that he's going to become a wanderer, lost from himself and eventually lost from his heritage, his colored heritage. >> right. you know, i like at steven wahl's father, someone who is really a hero of african-american histories. i have to ask myself, why don't we know who he is? why isn't he on a stamp? i think a big part of that is that his children became white, and it became imperative that they forget everything about him. and, you know, you really see how -- you see what is lost by this process. you know, for wahl to -- and in a way i think steven wahl new that this would be the result of
the trial. >> uh-huh. >> the fact that he pursued the trial meant he had tried to become white by keeping his mouth shut, by really just, you know, letting people look at him and assume he was white. then newspapers reported the story. they didn't just report the story. they reported what block he lived on in his neighborhood. so there was -- >> "washington post," wasn't if? >> it was "the washington post." it was about every washington daily that reported this. he was denounced pointedly by the major african-american paper of the day, "the washington bee" which promised honey for our friends and stings for our enemies. >> they delivered on the latter. >> yes, there were a lot of stings for steven wahl.
so in a way he tried to be quietly anonymous, but then he did something. he could have stayed quiet and anonymous. but he did something that forced everybody to think about o.s.b. wahl one last time. >> and it's interesting, you know, as one -- as a person of color, one can put one's self in these scenarios, because as i said, you know, this is our story. i mean, i can tell you. when i was about 14 years old, i was -- i grew up in a town just outside of philadelphia, a factory town. i was 14 years old. i was on the bus doing an errand for my mother. a bus pulled up to the corner and a gentleman got into the bus who was a friend of family, passed whole days in my living room and he walked by me and
didn't speak. i got up to -- i thought he hadn't seen me. i got up, and he was with a woman who was white. and he pushed her down the aisle with one hand and turned to me with one hand and raised his hand like that with pay look of horror on his face. he didn't say a word. he said like that. and in that moment, 14 i was, in that moment i realize that had our friend was black with us, and he was white on the white side of town. no one had ever given me this calculus, but from then on i knew not to speak to him when i saw him on the white side of town. so these kind of -- and one of the really interesting things in steven's case, steven for a time is a tenant of a woman named
mary turrell is a famous civil rights activists, educator, writer and journalist. her husband was the first black municipal judge of washington. mary is basically sitting on the school board when they eject steven's daughter, and she tries to argue that the girl is, in fact, white. also, mary in her heart of hearts kind of wanted steven to succeed. she understood. if you look at her and her memoirs and her letters, even people -- the race proud people that were civil rights activists, they understood segregation was so grueling and a source of deprivation to children, that sometimes they just closed their eyes and they let their friends become white because they knew it was better for the family involved. you see, she was really supporting, maybe, boosting
steven across the line. >> yep. i mean, it's unclear to me whether by renting to steven wahl she was trying to bring him back in or whether this was -- she just provided a weigh station for them on their path, you know, from brookland in northeast washington, kind of over eventually to georgetown. >> uh-huh. so finally in that last thing, i mean, when i -- i did a piece about this wonderful, wonderful book. you see it gets me going. and i compared them to the hemmings family. customarily in history the value of newly acquired whiteness can be measured in dollars and cents. you know? among the hemmings family, the
people who became white, they became army officers, doctors, heads of banks and so on. the people who essentially looked identical and who decided to remain colored, well, they were caters, small farmers and laborers and so on. the value of whiteness came in. i know it's fashionable to think whiteness doesn't have an advantage, but believe me it does. you can always measure it. so in this sense steven, you know, he finally escapes at the cost of his house, his tranquillity, his relationship to other people, the black elites, they know him, and he could have lived very comfortably among them. but he escapes out of that, and he gets to be this itinerant white person, but he becomes white too late to make any benefit of it, does he not? >> for him he was 65. and becoming white was really a downwardly mobile move for him
and his family. >> say more about that. what do you mean by that? >> so, you know, had he stayed african-american, you know, he was retiring and there was no social security. it was not an easy plif for retirees, but he would have been part of a community that really knew him where he had a certain amount of status. you know, certain kinds of opportunities. and by, you know, moving out of that community, by moving from place to place, his children really -- they didn't have the same kind of educational opportunities. they wound up with less money, less status, very -- a very isolated and anonymous
existence. >> the sense -- i got that sense in the book, too, this idea that them, you know this sort of downward mobility thing, and washington, that would have been really apparent and also, it would have been really observe because the elites of washington were extremely visible at all times. we're going to begin to take questions shortly, so the deal is if you want to ask questions, you have to walk to the microphone because we're being recorded here. you can ask questions, and we can go sort of right on talking if you'd like. but daniel, also, you know, i take it that this subject matter chose you in a way. i mean, daniel, i thought, was going to be a lawyer practicing in a law firm and go home with
suitcases full of money. but this subject matter got ahold of you. what happened there? >> you know, this was -- and i kind of story and a kind of issue that i first encountered in college. a kind of issue thai first encountered in college and i -- and it was a story that i kept kind of putting down, kept thinking this was fascinating. i'm so glad that i spent all this time researching this and now i'm going to live my life. so when i finished college, i thought -- you know, i wrote my thesis about a north carolina divorce case from 100 years ago where husbands sought an annulment on the grounds that he had unwittingly married a black woman. and the -- and i thought, this is wonderful, and now i'm going to be a journalist. and i worked three years as a journalist and then i went to law school. and i thought i'm here in law school to be a lawyer. so i was going to be a criminal lawyer. and in my first year, there was
an elective that was offered called topics in 19th century american legal history. and i thought to myself, i know i should take something practical, but i have to take this class. and i thought, does it show weakness of character that i'm interested in this class? and then i thought, yeah, probably, it does, but i took it, anyway. and in that class, i wrote a paper about a slander case in west virginia about 100 years ago where it was like an appalachian family feud, but instead of bullets, the family's -- one family shot rumors that the other family was black all around the county. that actually forms the core of one of the families -- another family i write about in the book. then i thought that was great, now i'm going to be a lawyer. i worked for the federal courts for three years and i worked as
a public interest lawyer in l.a. my family, we had moved to boston and i was in the process of interviewing with boston law firms. and at the same time, i had applied for a fellowship from the national endowment for the humanities as an independent scholar to work on turning this paper i had written in law school into something bigger. and nine months after i applied, you know, basically when i had forgotten i applied, i got the fellowship. so the national endowment for the humanities saved me from a life of gainful employment. >> we have one question. yes? >> say your name. >> my name is ros lasker. you know, this is a wonderful presentation. thank you. and this is a country where everything is defined according to "we, the people." and, of course, everything is
how we define who a people is. i think that there's a difference, though, in thinking about who is black, more black, blackest and in thinking about who is white, less white, least white and not white. many people who have been in this country originally, or who have come here as immigrants, very different than african-americans who did not come here on their own, have been considered not to be white. even people here who are women were not considered to be people. >> and the question? >> yeah. and -- no, the question is, as we start looking at this issue in today's world, where white people are becoming a minority in this country, is there a difference in how we actually approach it in terms of how we change what's going on in this country? whether we consider who is not white or who is black?
>> that's a very interesting question. and i think that one of the lessons that i draw from the stories of these three families is that in some ways maybe it's less important to talk about race and drops of blood than talk about racism and inequality. so, you know, we can think of the blackness in terms of black blood, but plenty of white people have black blood, too. what does that leave us when we think about what race is? and i think what we're left is, you know, race as a -- basically a crude marker of discrimination. a bare proxy for hierarchy.
it's like what w. db deboise said. he said people ask me what is a black man? i say the answer is easy. the black man is the one who has to ride the jim crow cart through georgia. and i think shifting our focus towards discrimination and inequality is, you know, we supposedly live in a post racial era. but as long as that inequality exists and the discrimination exists, then race exists, too. >> i think we'll leave it there. thank you. >> thank you. this year, c-span's local content vehicles are traveling the country, exploring american history. next, a look at our recent visit to wichita, kansas. you're watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend.
on c-span 3. >> the first populist governor. >> what led to the moven't was a rule versus urban. there was the west where you had the railroads taking the money and bankers taking the money and farmers weren't ending up with anything. one of the things that made the populist movement is that it touched everybody. it was here at the wichita auditorium that lorenzo lewelling, at that point an unknown gave this talk that so impressed the people he was elected governor. >> his speech was a fiery speech. his rhetoric was really towards that of a war general leading troops into battle. he talked about taking down the proletariat government that had been in bed with the railroads.
he also talked about cooperation with the state's other political party, the democrats. that's really what kind of won him over, won the people over here at this populist convention, was the fact that he was willing to accept this fusion ticket, which would become such a point of contention among the populists in later years. in 1892, they needed those democratic votes to secure an electoral victory. that's basically what won him this nomination. >> he took office on january >> he took office on january 10th of 1893. almost immediately, there was this power play between the populist and the republican party. neither one was going to yield power. it was up to lewelling to decide what was going to happen. he ends up calling in the militia. there is 250 militia men surrounding the kansas capital with gatling guns. you could hear drums beating.
all these men are there. populists are not yielding. and neither are the republicans. food has to be sent up and down on ropes to the capitol building. no one was going home. valentine's day comes. no one is going home. finally, it goes to the supreme court and they decide that the republicans meet in one part of the capitol. the populists have to meet in another part. and that's what kind of ends the war. >> so really at the heart of the issue was an election dispute. there were 12 seats in the house that were contested by -- that the republicans had said that they won, that the populists were contesting. so the day comes to convene the house and we have 24 people show up for 12 seats. obviously, that is not going to work. they divide on party lines. that's where we kind of get this legislative war kind of happening. basically, it is a stalemate in the house of representatives. no legislation is getting passed.
desperate chancians who are in western kansas, suffering a drought for the last five years aren't getting the help they need from their government. there is this backlash against the populist coming out of the legislative war of 1893. lewelling kind of becomes a scapegoat. that is the reason he wasn't able to be re-elected. he remains a populist up until 1896 when williams jennings bryant runs for the united states president and ends up winning the nomination, not only the populist party but the democratic party as well. after that, he becomes more of a socialist. he is not accepted really by his former populist brethren. he can't go back to the republican party because he is the enemy now. he kind of switches gears and goes more towards socialism. he ends up getting elected to the state senate where he serves until he dies.